THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

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With John Motson soon to retire, the age of distinctive commentators’ voices has ended. In their place are a group of estate agentesque safe choices

6 September ~ Having been watching (and playing) football practically since I could walk, my earliest memories are of the early morning, if not quite the dawn of televised football. From my armchair, I regale today’s youngsters with all kinds of contrasts and complaints about football now as opposed to then – the fact that back in the good old days, the game was more juvenile-delinquent, on and off the pitch, and the players looked more like women, as opposed to today’s boringly disciplined lot who resemble extras from a movie set in the trenches of the First World War. My most aching grievance, however, is the Homogenisation of the Commentator.

I don’t believe there ever was a Golden Age of football commentary in terms of actual comment. Phrases that have become part of microphone folklore are either inane or don’t make a lot of sense. “Goals pay the rent and Keegan does his share”, “That goal was good enough to win the Grand National”, or, inevitably, “Look at his face!” Then, as now, it was above all the function of commentators to bear us along on a barely articulate tide of nervous tension with occasional eruptions of giddy excitement as if phlegm were bursting from the screen.

However, back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a distinctiveness, a diversity about the clutch of regular commentators which reflected the more random, open processes of career selection in those days. So, you had Kenneth Wolstenholme’s clipped, dry tones, reminiscent of a chap on the touchline in his greatcoat with his spaniel; the broader, authoritative vowels of David Coleman with his more straight-faced sense of the urgency of modern, widely broadcast sporting occasions; Barry Davies, with his pedantic foreign pronunciations and schoolmasterly disdain for sloppy play and poor application; John Motson, who wore his naive, nerdy enthusiasm on his sleeve, forever a chubby 13-year-old schoolboy poring over his scrapbook of clippings from Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly when all his friends were getting into the Beatles. Then, over on ITV you had Brian Moore with his recurring tics like that saucy little growl when a swift counter-attack developed, or the blustery, histrionic Hugh Johns, who had no qualms about describing an own goal as “an absolute tragedy”.

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All of these commentators persisted for decades, not least because they represented a long thread of consistency in the lives of football watchers. However, successors have emerged and, finally, taken over the game. It started, perhaps, with Alan Parry, who appears to have provided the template for all subsequent commentators, the DNA from which they have been cloned, and from which Alan Partridge may have derived his quintessence.

The late Tony Gubba, for so long an understudy at the BBC, may also have been a precursor. He was followed by Clive Tyldesley and Peter Drury, as gradually, in an age of more cautious filtering as to what sort of voice gets heard on TV and what doesn’t, all commentators seemed to merge into one type – a good voice for Powerpoint presentation, the engaging but businesslike stuff of which estate agents of the month are made, their efficient delivery leavened by mirthlessly wry asides: “He’s in the mood for a goal today, you know.” It’s as if, in their faintly accented but ultimately accentless tones, they inadvertently comment on what England has become: a nation of service industries, insurance providers, financial advisers.

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Granted, there are modern exceptions, such as Martin Tyler, who greets a goal either with indifference, barely breaking cadence, or with a shriek so hysterical it’s as if his head has spun off like a top: “Shearaaaagggghhhh!” Or Jonathan Pearce, whose voice feels constantly set at a pitch of monumentally fatuous overkill, as if he never got over Robot Wars. But who among us today can really claim with confidence that we can tell the difference between a Matterface and a Mowbray? The ingrained, distinguishable eccentricity of commentators of yesteryear has now, sadly, been farmed out to the sidekicks; the pensionably tiresome Mark Lawrenson, or the adverb-averse Andy Townsend, or the consciously kickable Robbie Savage.

What’s needed isn’t a nostalgic return to the crusty days of yore but a new distinct breed of commentators who in background, orientation, attitude, character and inflexion represent the much-vaunted diversity of the 21st century UK. I’m thinking of strange, new exotic species such as women and ethnic minorities, rather than the endless, off-the-peg grey patter of the sort of presentable, white, male, middle-aged safe pairs of hands you end up talking to when you’re looking to remortgage. David Stubbs

This article first appeared in WSC 332, October 2014. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here

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